The Invisible Man is a Fun if Repetitive Spectacle
by Kristin Battestella
The 1958-59 H.G. Wells' Invisible Man television series boasts two thirteen episode seasons filled with invisible black and white trickery, mad science espionage, and continental intrigue for the radiated Dr. Peter Brady. While some of the half hour adventures are dated and derivative, there's a certain mid century science fiction charm to the driverless cars and early television special effects.
Due to an unpredictable side effect of his “refraction” science, Dr. Peter Brady is transformed lab coat and all in “Secret Experiment” and he doesn't know how to make himself visible again. Some of the colloquial invisible science dialogue is of its time and wooden, but government agencies want Brady's secrets – leading to quarantine suspense, stolen cover ups, and well filmed invisible escapes. Rather than be confined or take advantage of Brady insists on finding a cure, agreeing to continue on at Castle Hill Laboratories while joking that they won't see him at work. A reclusive and disfigured millionaire risks being a new test subject in “Behind the Mask,” and The Invisible Man is best when the stories focus on the experiments and gray morality at home. Powder from a lady's compact is handy in revealing our invisible quarry, and it's bemusing when people say they are glad to see Brady before stumbling to correct themselves. Occasionally, there's also no mid-air cigarette or other invisible scene indicator, forcing the audience to pay attention for a clue on The Invisible Man's location – a lingering focus on a blank wall or a longer emphasis on an empty chair. Under the bandages decoys and dangerous radiation provide top secret approvals and assassination attempts before the Season Two premiere “Point of Destruction” brimming with experimental fuel risks and airplane disasters. Radical science sabotage, snipers after Brady – when wounded, his blood trail reappears and faking his death may help catch the bad guys. More daring train escapes in “Death Cell” lead to unreliable witnesses, questionable doctors, straight jackets, and hidden photograph negatives before missing coworkers and destroyed files in “Flight into Darkness.” Brady demonstrates the unsafe implications of a new anti-gravity technology while government ministers and peace organizations argue over using it as a weapon, and The Invisible Man is almost ahead of its time with such ambiguous implications. Well filmed suspense, neighboring windows, and dangerous voyeurs invoke Alfred Hitchcock for “The Decoy” alongside decoded notes, kidnapped singers, and twin sister ruses. USO tours and American officers provide timely patriotic winks amid double decker buses, twin camera trickery, and invisible points of view for those speedboat chases.
Unlike the ego maniacs in the film adaptations, Dr. Peter Brady is a solid chap helping catch those who would abuse emerging science. He goes on secret missions when the country asks him, but Peter's frustrated over being unable to find a cure. He shaves before the mirror out of habit despite admitting it is a waste of time. Brady dislikes stifling security measures, so he often goes invisible at home when people spy in the window or treat him like an animal in the zoo. He laughs at the irony of people staring at him and makes jokes when they say they're happy to see him but occasionally also wishes they could indeed look on him. Peter doesn't want to be fixed up on dates with famous dames or relax at the theater in “Play to Kill,” for he'd rather be a hermit, shut himself in, and get some work done. Blackmail over celebrity hit and runs add to his notoriety, and though reluctant to wear his bandages, he chuckles at revealing himself as a headless man to scare people. His work is stolen in the Season One finale “Strange Partners,” but Brady's lured with a call about its recovery before being trapped by a vicious dog – one of the few times his being unseen doesn't help him. The personal and immediate dangers, however, fall away in favor of espionage and heroics. Instead of seeking his once most important cure, Brady is at times selfish, enjoying being the one who can save the day after the surprisingly graphic marketplace shootouts of “The Gun Runners.” A sassy intelligence dame asks for his help on an off the record mission, and he's a little smitten at her brash compared to all the helpless damsels he rescues. The invisible tag team cargo switches are a lot of fun, and the corrupt officials think it's her great right hook because they don't know Brady is doing the swinging! Such undercover chemistry actually would have made a great finale as Peter toasts his refraction heroics with a witty dame accepting of his condition. Of course, an actor is never seen in the role billed as The Invisible Man, but the uncredited voice actor Tim Turner apparently does the most work among several other fill-in actors. Not only was the unknown casting probably cheaper, but knowing the specific character or personality underneath the bandages was unfortunately secondary to the invisible wink and all the unseen trickery – unlike today where the allure would be in never seeing the famous face involved or having a different star under the bandages each week.
Often called “Dee,” Lisa Daniely (Doctor Who) as Brady's widowed sister Diane takes him into her home despite the adjustments – like bumping into him when he doesn't have on his overcoat. Although his family isn't there for themselves so much as to answer the phone as required or to help with a plan, Dee isn't afraid to wield a gun and take on the bad guys. When Peter says he's so angry he could kill, she insists he has his dinner first and demands he wear sunscreen invisible or not. It's a leap that this mild mannered housewife is apparently an incredibly resourceful catch all lady in disguise, but Dee pretends to be a reporter for information and remains a strong headed woman. She witnesses a man hiding stolen film in the lining of saucy puppeteer Hazel Court's (The Masque of the Red Death) coat in “The Mink Coat,” but her brother doesn't believe her despite obvious strong arming attacks and gunpoint threats. Deborah Watling (who also appeared on Doctor Who) as Brady's sassy and precocious niece Sally is cool with this invisible thing and fresh to those pesky reporters bothering her famous uncle. Although they probably didn't think anything of it then, her being in the bathroom with him is a little weird, and throwaway lines about him not wearing his invisible clothes inadvertently imply some awkward nakedness. I could almost do without her, but the entire family angle is dropped by the middle of the Second Season with just a few late appearances for Sally. It's obviously a money saving maneuver to have less regular cast, but the continental espionage of the week takes The Invisible Man away from the science fiction and personal elements that make the series unique as in “Picnic with Death” when a car accident with witnesses puts Brady's condition in the headlines. The family receives extra security, but Peter insists he's a human being not a government file. The invisibility causes more trouble at home as desperate reporters watch objects moving by themselves and try to get a picture as Brady helps one of Sally's friends prove her crooked step father is trying to kill his invalid wife. Sally's kidnapped in “Bank Raid,” too. There are consequences to The Invisible Man being famous with ransom notes and abandoned houses making the titular heists stronger because the action is personal. Of course, there's also some humor when poor Sally can't flag down any help because bystanders are more shocked at her driverless transportation!
Unfortunately, the of the time stereotypes happen early and often with brownface Arabs in “Crisis in the Desert.” There's no real attempt to clarify which agencies or military intelligence are recruiting Brady, either – random colonels use his undercover cover to thwart escaped agents or unfriendly regimes as needed amid generic thugs of the week thrashing themselves about in the invisible fisticuffs. Though originally a secret, everyone eventually knows about Brady. Nobody minds if he interferes in a local crime, a coup against cliche foreign powers, or goes vigilante versus enemy scientists. “The Locked Room” and “Shadow on the Screen” provide anti-government statements, fake accents, Russian sailors, scientist defections, and comrade interjections – if you've seen one of these international intrigue episodes, you've seen them all. It's not so memorable when episodes rely almost entirely on action sans dialogue and people we don't know. The white UK agents saving Cairo from heroin dealing Arabs in “Blind Justice” also misses the mark despite some surprisingly modern politic intrigue, the irony of a blind woman helping The Invisible Man, and future 007 guests Honor Blackman and Desmond Llewelyn. Speeding trains and con artists can't hide that “Jailbreak” has Brady helping yet another wrongly accused lady. He says he can't help everyone, but that's exactly what he does, and The Invisible Man should have chosen whether he was going to be a post-war hero fighting international enemies or just be an invisible mad scientist. Too many episodes become insert exotic locale here – although they were in Paris the show prior, Diane tells Peter she's due a holiday in “Odds Against Death.” They thwart a scientist gambling in the Alps with some invisible roulette tricks, but “The Vanishing Evidence” offers more faux accents and stolen secrets. These aren't all terrible episodes, but the humorous invisible moments are out of place amidst the anonymous action plots. The foreign checkpoints, SS-esque officers, and tortured writer held for exposing a country's terrors in “The Prize” could be an interesting, ahead of its time rescue, but it's lost in a sea of similar of their time episodes. When Brady is called in regarding the eponymous refraction experiments of “The White Rabbit,” it's just more fake accents and fascism. An enemy wanting an army of invisible men could be a great arc, but there's no defined fictitious country or rival scientist to battle. It's more drugs for “Man in Disguise” and Middle East ploys yet again in “Man in Power.” “The Rocket” has more titular secrets at risk over gambling before the malfunctioning weapon of “Shadow Bomb” and the atomic bomb parts in the “The Big Plot” finale. Despite frequent directors Pennington Richards (Interpol Calling), Peter Maxwell (A Country Practice), and Quentin Lawrence (The Ghosts of Motley Hall) and writing teams with Ian Stuart Black (Doctor Who); creator Ralph Smart (Secret Agent) seems most responsible for all the similar action hours and stock scripts. Maybe everyone wanted to add their own science or spy spins, but that leaves the series with no cohesive vision in too short a run.
Thankfully, Tudor manors, classic fifties décor, and cool convertibles add nostalgia alongside phone booths with horseshoe phones, old school newspaper headlines, brandy decanters, and vintage dressing gowns. Old fashioned nurses uniforms and classic constable styles invoke more British mood while flashbulb cameras, aviation photography, radio controls, and giant switchboard plugs set off the through the gun barrel camera visuals. Retro futuristic dials, buzzes, switches, and knobs hit home The Invisible Man's premise with lab coats, cages, and disappearing animal subjects. The bandages, gloves, fedora, and sunglasses create that memorable invisible silhouette, and the unwrapping old chroma key effects are still neat. Phone receivers hang in the air, papers flip on their own, gates open and close by themselves – all tricks for The Invisible Man's slight of hand, of course. There's something pleasant in these disappearing strings ruses. Today we take such in camera skills for granted as now we just motion capture the actor and CGI remove him from the frame. Where's the fun in that? Sound effects are also important as the camera follows unseen footsteps and other foleys itemize the invisible action. Certainly it's obvious all the dialogue is dubbed voiceovers and cast speaking opposite our doctor are usually filmed in a separate shot. However, the actions are well timed with actors moving in and out of the opening or closing doors in step with the invisible cues, and bravo to stunt personnel dealing with operator-less lawn mowers, no riders on the horse's back, and roadsters with nobody behind the wheel nor in the sidecar. Getting that full wine glass to dangle in the invisible air without spilling anything must have been tough!
The Invisible Man often has weak writing and a thin, aimless focus. The over-reliance on weekly bad guys and international espionage of the era can be tiring for sophisticated audiences today. The plots are often more action than personal man versus science fiction mistakes, but this series doesn't deserve to be obscure. H.G.Wells' Invisible Man is still an appealing what if experiment gone wrong with vintage invisible special effects, and it's a fun retro marathon for the whole family.